My Three Sons

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My Three Sons

One of the longest-running and most popular sitcoms in television history, My Three Sons offered a cultural anodyne to the turbulent events that characterized America during the 1960s, presenting "wholesome" family entertainment. The series revolved around an all-male household facing the trials and tribulations of life in suburbia in the 1960s. The series, which ran from 1960 to 1972, was one of television's first single-parent sitcoms. It starred Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas, a widowed aeronautical engineer, raising his three boys in a motherless household. When the series began the boys were Mike (18), Robbie (14), and Richard or "Chip" (seven). Also in the home was the kids' gruff but lovable grandfather, Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey, who moved in to cook and clean for the family. He was played by veteran character actor William Frawley, best known for his portrayal of Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. In the course of its long run, the series' structure changed several times as members of the Douglas clan were added or subtracted. However, its tone always remained comfortingly "square."

According to authors Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, actor Fred MacMurray came to symbolize the classic idealized television father. They wrote, "[MacMurray] exudes, revels in, and virtually defines bland TV fatherhood in the role of Steve Douglas. He stands as an edifice, a monument to an age of simplicity, both on TV and in our pristine national image of ourselves." Ironically, this man who played television's most attentive father had no interest in a TV career. He had been a popular and successful movie actor, whose career had begun in the 1930s and included roles in several classic movies, notably the lead in Double Indemnity (1944), and the cause of Jack Lemmon's troubles in The Apartment (1960). MacMurray also gained pop culture immortality as the facial model for Captain Marvel, the 1940s comic book super-hero who exclaimed the magic word "Shazam." Upon being approached to headline a series called The Fred MacMurray Show, the star refused, saying he did not wish to devote his time to the medium. To persuade him to reconsider, the producers altered the show's name to My Three Sons to reflect the increased emphasis on the children and, when he accepted, they accommodated his contractual requirements by implementing the unique "MacMurray System" shooting schedule. MacMurray agreed to work only for 65 days in any one season of the show, so all episodes were written far in advance and filmed out of sequence. MacMurray would then, for example, tape all the year's scenes set in the family kitchen in one afternoon. The cast would then shoot their scenes around the "missing" MacMurray months later.

Despite its chaotic shooting schedule, the series always portrayed a stable and loving family whose problems were usually minor. All the lead characters had backgrounds in "family entertainment" emphasizing the show's approach and increasing its audience appeal. MacMurray and his eldest TV son, Tim Considine (Mike), had starred in several Disney productions; Don Grady (Robbie) had been a Mouseketeer in the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club, and even little Stanley Livingston (Chip) had appeared in several episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The boys were "good kids" who never caused serious difficulties for their dad, and the storylines centered on their growing pains and their father's occasional romances. The series' tone was always kept light, with barely a mention of the family's late wife and mother. Furthermore, references to such 1960s strife as political assassinations, Vietnam, and increased drug use among the nation's youth were completely avoided. When the imperfect reality of the outside world was allowed to intrude on the Douglas family, it was generally as a benign acknowledgment of changing trends, demonstrated by such innocuous events as Chip's decision to wear a Beatles' haircut.

During its run, the series underwent several important cast and format changes. The ailing William Frawley left the show in 1964 and was replaced by the even grouchier Uncle Charley, played by William Demarest; and, in 1965, Tim Considine asked to leave his role as the eldest son. When he departed the show, the plot had MacMurray adopting a local orphan named Ernie—played by Barry Livingston, the real-life brother of Stanley—to keep the series title accurate. Eventually the entire family moved to California where father Steve and sons Robbie and Chip all got married. In 1968, Robbie's wife Katie gave birth to triplets, named Steve, Charley, and Robbie II. Once again, there were three Douglas boys. Even the all-male family format that served as the series' original basis was abandoned as Steve's new wife moved in with her own daughter, Dodie. The strangest twist of the show occurred in 1972 when MacMurray took on a second role as Lord Fergus McBain Douglas, a Scottish cousin in search of a wife. With such an extended cast, episodes could only feature selected members of the growing Douglas family each week. The show was canceled in 1972, but returned in 1977 for a reunion special. Fred MacMurray died in 1991.

Few television programs have better represented the perfect family ideal. In My Three Sons, the kids were decent, the father dependable, and even the grandfather had a soft heart beneath his crusty exterior. Fred MacMurray and company presented good, clean entertainment suitable for the entire family throughout an increasingly troubled era. Along with programs like Bachelor Father and The Andy Griffith Show, it paved the way for later domestic comedies featuring single-parent households and demonstrated that sitcom audiences would accept a program without a traditional nuclear family as its center. The Douglas's may not have physically fit the "Ozzie and Harriet" mold, but they held the same values, ideals, and gentle good humor.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Bianculli, David. Dictionary of Teleliteracy. New York, Continuum, 1996.

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars. New York, Ballantine Books, 1987.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows. New York, Prentice Hall, 1989.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York, Perigee, 1983.

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My Three Sons

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